Kendall Hicks is a bubbly 14-year-old with sparkling green eyes who loves playing the flute in the middle school band and cuddling with her guinea pig, Levi. Hangouts with friends typically turn into laugh-fests. And laughter, as the saying goes, is the best medicine.
Walking into Kendall’s room at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, a visitor is greeted by big smiles and a gleeful celebration with family. Kendall is wearing sunglasses and a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a “Super K” shield, ready to celebrate and excited to go home.
“Seeing her laugh is a blessing,” said her grandmother, Carol Hicks. “She is definitely one of God’s miracles.”
For a while, Kendall’s family was unsure when, or if, she would laugh again.
Kendall was critically injured in an Oct. 5 accident near their Deford, Michigan home. She and her younger sister, Maddy, were riding in a car with their mother, Melissa, when they were involved in a serious crash.
“I was going to drop the kids off at grandma’s house on my way to work,” Melissa said. “I don’t remember what happened, but I was told I swerved to miss a deer and we were (broadsided) by a truck.”
Kendall was the most seriously injured, sustaining a traumatic brain injury and multiple fractures throughout her body. She was hospitalized at Covenant Healthcare in Saginaw for four weeks before she was well enough to be transferred to Mary Free Bed to begin rehabilitation.
When she arrived on Nov. 9, Kendall had limited consciousness and was unable to move. Her vision was impaired, her swallowing was affected and she couldn’t communicate. She also had muscle contractures in her arms and hands, and her left foot and ankle.
“It took a qualified team of therapists as well as her doctor, psychologist, care manager and child life specialist working hard together to provide a positive and successful rehabilitation experience for Kendall,” said Jennifer Ancans, an occupational therapist on the inpatient Pediatric team who worked closely with her.
As Kendall grew stronger, she learned to hold her head up, control and use her trunk, to sit and to stand. Ultimately, her trunk and legs were strong enough for her to walk, Jennifer said. Her contractures were corrected, and she started to gain purposeful movement through intense physical, occupational, speech language and recreational therapies, including music and aqua therapy.
“Kendall was motivated and worked hard every day,” Jennifer said.
An animal lover, Kendall made a real connection with Vandy, Mary Free Bed’s animal-assisted intervention dog. Vandy works with patients to help them reach therapy goals.
“The first time I felt like Kendall really came alive was when she met Vandy for the first time,” Melissa said. “Vandy was licking her, and Kendall started laughing. It was quite emotional.”
As the weeks turned into months, the family celebrated Kendall’s rehabilitation milestones along with holidays and birthdays. Her room was decorated with pictures of family, friends and her pets, get-well cards and a string of birthday wishes when she turned 14 on Feb. 16.
“It was our home for six months,” said Melissa, who stayed in Kendall’s room with her, leaving only for occasional visits to see Maddy, while she recovered at home under the care of her husband, Brian.
Melissa was with Kendall for most of her therapy sessions – when she wasn’t attending her own. She participated in outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy to treat a brain injury, two herniated discs and severe muscular strain she sustained in the accident.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Melissa said.
By the time Kendall was cleared for a May 18 graduation date, she could sit safely and walk with the help of a cane and a foot brace – “plus a tiny bit of help, mostly for safety,” Jennifer said.
“Kendall could communicate with simple words and by writing things down, and she was able to read again,” she said. “She could feed herself, dress herself and perform all of her personal care with minimal assistance. She’s done amazing.”
And while they know she has a long journey ahead, the Hicks family is thankful to Kendall’s Mary Free Bed team for putting her on the path to independence.
“Everyone here is wonderful, so kind and caring,” Carol said. “They really love Kendall.”
To thank her team, the Hicks family ordered “Super K” t-shirts and celebrated with them at a party on the hospital’s terrace the night before Kendall’s graduation.
“Our biggest fear has been the unknown,” Carol said. “We didn’t know what ‘It takes a long time’ meant. It didn’t register. We’re finding out over six months later that we still have a long way to go, but we’re feeling good about it. She’s doing well.”
Since graduation, the family has settled in at their quiet home in the country. Kendall goes to an outpatient rehabilitation center in Caro for physical, occupational and speech therapy five days a week, and recreational therapy two days a week, Melissa said.
“She’s riding horses as part of her therapy and continuing with music therapy, too,” she said. “She’s beginning to talk in sentences … and there’s lots of laughter.
“Kendall’s never been the rabbit in the race – she’s always been the turtle, slow and steady. That’s been her journey here, slow and steady, always moving forward.”